The climate risks of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

By Sagatom Saha, September 8, 2020

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China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not the green project that Beijing claims it is. Leading up to the first BRI forum in May 2017, the Chinese government published official documents declaring BRI would promote the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals (Chen 2019). At the forum itself, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping advertised BRI as a “vision of green development and a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular, and sustainable” (Xinhua 2017). BRI, which promises sustainable development for all participating countries, hinges on the truth of this premise. General Secretary Xi accrued significant international support and global participation for BRI with this claim. China established the International Green Development Coalition on the Belt and Road in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme, increasing BRI’s international legitimacy (Liqiang 2019).

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However, evidence abounds of the environmental harm the Chinese government wreaks beyond its borders. China has long been the world’s largest exporter of coal power equipment, exporting twice as much as Japan, its nearest competitor (United Nations 2020). Chinese banks are financing more than 70 percent of all coal plants outside of China, with Chinese firms constructing many of them, including in countries like Egypt and Pakistan that previously burned little to no coal (Quartz 2019). At current rates, Chinese coal equipment exports and financing make it virtually impossible to limit global warming to safe levels, which would require retiring one coal plant per day globally (Hilton 2019). BRI’s environmental damage is not limited to the energy sector. Transportation infrastructure, mining, and land reclamation for mega-cities carry their own environmental and climate risks that are harder to quantify (Elkind 2019).

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